VMware recently announced that more than 300 institutions are participating in its academic program. The program is designed to give the schools free access to virtualization products, source code and resources.

David Lie, assistant professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto, uses VMware in his 200-student security course. The primary purpose, however, is as a research tool.

“We’re doing a lot of research on looking at ways to make computers more secure. While developing operating systems VMware allows you to check bugs. Things only hang on your virtual machine, and you can use several systems at once.”

Code detection is useful if a system is compromised by a rootkit. A virtual machine can also take snapshots, roll back, or even temporarily suspend operations.

“This is not only identifying what code is running,” says Lie, “but also exerting control over how codes are permitted to be executed. Even if the OS is compromised and wants to run code, the virtual machine can tell the hardware not to run it.”

Professor Lie and the University of Toronto are in good company. Other participants in the program include the University of Waterloo, a host of Ivy League schools south of the border, as well Oxford, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

University professors are using virtualization to develop kernel-level policies and mechanisms without disrupting the underlying host operating system, as well as sandboxing for system prototypes. Having VMware Infrastructure also helps with disaster recovery. Bowdoin College, a small private liberal arts college in Brunswick, Me., uses features that allow for resource pools and the dynamic movement of virtual machines as needs change.

This is beyond teaching and research.

Diane Greene, WMware’s president and chief executive officer, recently made special reference to Bowdoin during the opening session of VMworld 2007.

“They didn’t want to buy a whole remote site and pay for that,” said Greene. “So they partnered with a University in Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount University, and the two universities provide disaster recovery sites for one another. They keep each other’s virtual machines ready to go should one of them have a disaster.”

This is part of a major shift in virtualization – to smaller organizations and the desktop. Driving this are new product releases and hardware enablement. In fact, global vendor participation means that virtualization will soon be a standard feature in a myriad of devices.

“Now virtualization can be on almost any computing device, including mobile,” says U of T’s Professor Lie. “There will be a lot of innovation going forward, and it will reach every piece of computing equipment. Cell phones, PDAs, their capabilities are increasing exponentially.”

For his part, Lie thinks virtualization will have a dramatic effect on the computing landscape due to the flexible approach to security. Virtualization can allow accounting apps and browsers, for example, to run on separate virtual machines, thus keeping financials locked down and web-surfing more open.

“The big problem now is that the OS has to support every application under the sun,” says Lie. “There are trade offs, for example, given that some apps need more security, and some greater accessibility.”

Professor Lie also emphasized the savings in energy. And during the opening session at VMworld, Hector de J. Ruiz, chairman and chief executive officer of AMD, made energy conservation and corporate responsibility a central tenet of his presentation. He backed up his words with a powerful example.

“In our own data centre in Austin, Tex., we consolidated 117 servers into seven active ESX 3.0 servers and two swing servers. The result is a projected 79 per cent reduction in power consumption.”

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